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Between Rights on Paper and Capabilities on the Ground: Policy-Based Barriers to Marginalized Women’s Sexual Rights



New York State makes explicit policy provisions to protect the sexual rights of minor-aged women, women labeled with intellectual disability, and immigrant women. In this qualitative policy analysis, we used the principles of Nussbaum’s (2000) Capabilities Approach to examine whether marginalized women are actually able to exercise these rights.


In Fall 2019 and Spring 2020, we interviewed 39 service providers in Buffalo, New York, to learn about the policies affecting diverse marginalized women’s sexual rights and sexual health resources. After verifying the accuracy of providers’ perceptions by triangulating these with the policies’ texts, we thematically analyzed providers’ comments to identify patterns in how policies shaped women’s sexual rights.


We identified three categories of policy-based barriers: those that regulate women’s sexual rights by design; those that interfered with sexual rights by accident; and policies that obstructed sexual rights by default, largely because marginalized women and/or sexuality were not considered. We provide examples of how each policy-based barrier affects each group of marginalized women.


Despite living in a state that formally recognizes their sexual rights, the actual sexual capabilities of minor girls, women labeled with ID, and immigrant women are attenuated by social policies. We consider the broad implications of the three types of policy-based barriers and offer specific recommendations for reducing these such that marginalized women are actually able to exercise their sexual rights.

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Deidentified data available upon request to the first author.


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The authors are grateful to the HOPE Buffalo community coalition for their support of this project. We also respect and appreciate the service providers working to enable the rights and capabilities of diverse women in Buffalo.

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Correspondence to Laina Y. Bay-Cheng.

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Bay-Cheng, L.Y., Mencia, J.J., Ginn, H.G. et al. Between Rights on Paper and Capabilities on the Ground: Policy-Based Barriers to Marginalized Women’s Sexual Rights. Sex Res Soc Policy (2021).

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  • Sexual rights
  • Capabilities Approach
  • Girls and women
  • Policy analysis
  • Youth
  • Intellectual disability
  • Immigrants